New York Can Be a Vibrant Venice as Sea Level Now Rises, Say Engineers

"New York doesn't have to move." - Five reality-based plans for how New York can "welcome the rising waters" - turn crisis into opportunity - and protect Lady Liberty.

Nature's Edge Notebook #37

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

New York City could become a vibrant Venice even as sea level rise accelerates, say architects and engineers.

And it could do so, they add, without the problems of Venice, which is built on soft, subsiding soil. The towers of Manhattan stand directly on solid bedrock.

They've displayed their visions of a more water-friendly and thriving New York in the models and illustrations of an exhibit called "Rising Currents."

It attracted city planners, engineers and architects not only from New York but coastal cities around the world. They started pouring into the exhibit when it first opened in 2010 at New York's celebrated MoMA - the Museum of Modern Art.

You can take a brief tour of it in our two video segments below, guided by the creator and coordinator of the display.

Both Practical and Visionary

The expert visitors have been praising it as both practical and visionary.

It is practical, they say, because:

  • Its 5 different suggestions for how to develop New York Harbor and the land around it are designed to meet worst case scenarios - including sea surges of 30 feet and more in a storm.
  • It is based on widely accepted climate science about advancing sea level rise.
  • It is tempered by architects' sensibilities about what may be economically feasible.

It is visionary, they say, because its illustrations, architects' models and diagrams offer a realistic, comprehensive and integrated visual and conceptual picture of how harbor-hugging New York City could evolve over the coming decades of rapid sea level rise.

"New York City does not have to move," Barry Bergdoll, the instigator and coordinator of this multi-group effort, told ABC News in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's coastal devastation.

"We can turn disaster into opportunity," he said.

Bergdoll, who is MoMA's Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, said the "Rising Currents" project shows in comprehensive and thoroughly researched detail that "we can deal with high water if we have to."

"Barriers alone can't do it," he told us, referring to the sea-surge floodgates being pondered by city officials for the three outer entrances to New York Harbor.

"We don't have to be merely defensive," he said. "We can turn it all to advantage, get co-benefits."

The proposals, say many of the visiting experts, are inspiring also because they offer a universal vision of how it may be possible to maintain an energetic and enjoyable coastal city once planners accept the hard scientific reality of accelerating sea level rise - which, as virtually all the worl's cliamte scientists agree, is being driven by man-made global warming..

As we detailed in our previous Nature's Edge Notebook, in about the year 1900, after thousands of years of little or no change, sea level started rising steadily.

This was due to man-made global warming, as climate scientists have repeatedly shown, which resulted in water expanding as it warmed and in new melting of land-based ice.

In the 1990s the rate of sea level rise suddenly sped up - again for reasons that the climate scientists can link only to man-made global warming.

It is now expected to increase another two or three feet by mid century, and as much as six feet by 2100.

The Inspiring Visions of 'Rising Currents'

In the "Rising Currents" exhibit we see:

  • Wall Street literally absorbing the occasional floods of storm surge by using new porous sidewalks, while office towers, built on rock, stand tall.
  • Beautiful new riverside parks in lower Manhattan.
  • Iconic Lady Liberty and Ellis Island snug inside protective wave-attenuation barriers.
  • New marinas and outdoor theaters on the bay - a vision suggseting a pleasant alternative to the brutal and flooded dystopia seen in the movie "Waterworld."
  • Even a newly rejuvenated and cleaned up natural harbor with healthy reefs for scuba sports divers, birdwatchers and other nature lovers.

"It's doable," said curator Bergdoll.

You can take a quick tour with Bergdoll in these two short video segments…

"New York City Could Be a Beautiful Venice":

"Oyster-Tecture To Protect Lady Liberty":

"Rising Currents" is also the sort of cumulative, learn-as-you-go project made possible in our newly warming world by the reviewable definiteness of the World Wide Web.

Its website first went live in 2009 when Bergdoll's visionary project was just getting launched, and then proceeded to track its evolution and invite editorials.

As soon as Hurricane Sandy's floodwaters began to drain from Manhattan (where Barry Bergdoll's higher ground household was one of many that took in "downtown refugees" from lower ground), Bergdoll and his team at MoMA started work on updating the "Rising Currents" website, drafting additional reflections and sending out invitations for further ideas and possible lessons learned - an ongoing project.

An Unusual - But Crucial - Expert

… in one of the last functioning "public squares."

If Barry Bergdoll, a museum curator, seems like an unusual sort of expert to have assembled such a widely praised and visionary set of possible solutions to one of the most dangerous impacts of man-made global warming - rapid sea level rise - he is.

But this appears, by all accounts, to be because his particular position and expertise have provided a much needed bridge in the global climate battle.

Man-made global warming has been widely described as an unprecedented crisis sorely in need of new communication among many professions and occupations that are usually separated. (This is sometimes shorthanded as "the stovepipe problem.")

Global warming is obvioulsy an all-enveloping - indeed "global" - problem.

"The art museum in contemporary society is one of the last few public squares," Bergdoll remarked to this reporter in a post-Sandy phone call from the West Coast, where he was gazing out a hotel window across the Pacific.

New York's MoMA provided a specific destination for officials from the world's coastal cities as soon as "Rising Currents" opened for its seven-month run in 2010.

It created enough of a stir in that location to get embedded in the minds of many experts, who now continue to explore its ideas on the "Rising Waters" website, and increasingly on other sites that work the same problem of rising sea level now facing the world's coastal cities.

"Fifteen of the world's 20 largest cities are on the ocean," said Bergdoll.

"Art fires the imagination," he said.

"Images are much more memorable than facts," he added.

Bergdoll's insights seem to have included his recognition that, as a museum curator of architecture and design - comfortable with both complex mathematics and elegant illustration of physical human environments - he was perfectly positioned to help in this part of the global warming crisis.

His field and expertise could infuse the bloodless realities of hard numbers and complex engineering formulas with the flesh-and-blood emotions that art and illustrations can stimulate - offer the continuing possibility of the healthy and engaged life in which people naturally want to have realistic hope.

Such hopes appear to have been inspired, juding by this exhibit's reception, by the non-verbal illustrations of creative thinking from architects and urban planners who first looked squarely at the reality of accelerating sea level rise, and then started to have some fun as they looked for beautiful and plausible solutions.

Psychological Benefit of Such Realistic Utopias - 'Agency'

…and Public Opinion Insights from ABC's Gary Langer

Two psychology notes about all this:

First, some utopian visions are notorious, of course, for producing horrors - for example, when they are built on fear, weakness and insult, as in the well-known example of Hitler's Nazism.

But when grounded in cautious realism, a hallmark of the "Rising Currents" project, such visions of a bright future may offer something psychologists praise for its potential health and effectiveness - "psychological agency."

It can give you a starting point, say psychologists, a handhold in the storm - something to help gain control and hope in a threatening situation.

Second, public opinion researchers discern psychologically-based patterns in the attitudes of various groups in different kinds of emergencies and crises.

Gary Langer, longtime director of public opinion research at ABC News, offers insights about how attitudes may shift and sources of natural leadership may vary in different kinds of social upheaval.

Insights into these two "psychologies" - exploring how public opinion and psychological agency may play out amid difficulties such as New York's sea level challenge - are briefly presented in this video segment from Nature's Edge:

"Two Psychologies of Global Warming: Experience and Agency"